On the Solemnity of Christ the King (November 24, 2013), Pope Francis brought the “Year of Faith to its conclusion with the issuance of his first apostolic exhortation entitled, Evangelii Gaudium (the “Joy of the Gospel”). The Year of Faith had been declared by Pope Benedict XVI in an apostolic letter, Porta Fidei (the “Door of Faith”) on October 11, 2011. It began a year later on October 11, 2012, the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The goal of the initiative was conversion and the rediscovery of faith so that all members of the Church could become credible witnesses of truth.
Pope Francis’ 200-plus page exhortation (the document can be found in its entirety at the Holy See’s website: www. vatican.va) was issued primarily as a response to the XIII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (Oct.7- 28, 2012) that was called by Pope Benedict XVI to study the theme: “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Faith.” This same Synod, which began the “Year of Faith,” had actually requested the writing of the exhortation and Pope Francis was happy to oblige them.
The Underlying Theme
In order to correctly interpret Evangelii Gaudium, it is important to consider the exhortation in light of its underlying theme, i.e. the need for the joyful proclamation of the Gospel. According to Vatican Radio, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, summarized the main message of the document when he presented it at a Vatican press conference as follows: “If we were to sum up Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium in a few words, we could say that it is an apostolic exhortation written around the theme of Christian joy in order that the Church may rediscover the original source of evangelization in the contemporary world…It is an invitation to recover a prophetic and positive vision of reality without ignoring the current challenges ... Pope Francis instills courage and urges us to look ahead despite the present crisis, making the cross and the resurrection of Christ once again “our victory banner.” (85)
The Specific Themes
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis does not attempt to address the “countless issues” that involve evangelization or to “offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world.” (16) Instead, his aim is to present guidelines that hopefully will encourage the Church in a “new phase of evangelization.” To this end, he identifies the themes he intends to address at length in the document and which he hopes each of us will adopt in all of our activities:
- the reform of the Church in her missionary outreach;
- the temptations faced by pastoral workers;
- the Church, understood as the entire People of God which evangelizes;
- the homily and its preparation;
- the inclusion of the poor in society;
- peace and dialogue within society; and
- the spiritual motivations for mission. (17)
Throughout his treatment of the themes, it is God’s merciful love that serves as the common foundation. God has loved each one of us first and continually seeks out every person with this message of salvation. Acceptance of this message gives meaning to life. The encounter, then, with Jesus Christ and the joy of sharing this experience of love with others becomes an inseparable bond as each person represents the “prolongation of the incarnation for each of us” (179) that, in turn, requires our showing “mercy towards all.” This mercy, as Pope Francis writes, is the key to heaven. (197).
Types of Papal Documents
Apostolic Exhortation: typically issued in response to a synod of bishops in which a pope encourages the Church to undertake a particular activity. Exhortations do not define Church doctrine and are considered less authoritative than papal encyclicals (exhortations are still more authoritative than other papal issuances such as audiences and homilies.)
Encyclical Letters: a general letter expressing the pope’s thoughts on matters of faith and morals. Encyclicals may be to the entire Church or to a particular Church or people. Encyclicals do not constitute ex cathedra (“from the chair”) pronouncements, i.e., they do not have infallible authority.
Apostolic Letters: a letter that may be concerned with a doctrinal matter or with a papal act such as declaring a church to be a basilica. Apostolic Letters are also of less authority than encyclicals.
Pope Francis named
On Dec. 11, TIME Magazine named Pope Francis its “person of the year.” He is the third pope to receive the designation – the others were Blessed John Paul II (1994) and Blessed John XXIII (1962). The magazine states that the person of the year is one who “for better or worse … has done the most to influence events of the year.” Past recipients of the title have included Mahatma Gandhi, Adolf Hitler, and Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook.
According to Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, “It’s a positive sign that one of the most prestigious recognitions in the international press” goes to a person who “proclaims to the world spiritual, religious and moral values and speaks effectively in favor of peace and greater justice.”
In talking about the pope, the magazine stated, “He talks about Christ’s love like a man who has found something wondrous and wants nothing more than to share it. ‘[Jesus] is waiting for us,’ Francis says…’This thought gives us hope! We are on the way to the Resurrection.’”